I’m fired up for the finals tonight, hoping Cavs keep this series close (and JR knows the score), so I felt like writing a little about the NBA.
There’s often a lot of talk about what era of the NBA was the best. We could look at this as a function of what teams were the most dominant (which could be assessed via ELO) or how many great players played in each season. While the latter doesn’t account for players in their primes or declines, it can give us some indication of exactly how much talent was featured in each NBA season.
Slam magazine recently released their new top 100 players of all time list, which could be argued against, but at least gives some critical assessment and ranking of players since the NBA’s founding. ESPN did this a few years back, but Slam’s list was constructed more recently. You can see the list from Slam below.
I want to point out again that I don’t personally agree with everything on this list (Uhhhh where is Anthony Davis??) but this list does give some ranking of players from people who cover the game. I looked at the number of top 100 players on this list who played in each season from 1980-2010 below. I want to point out that I cutoff at 2010 since we are still watching many player careers unfold, which may drastically change these ranks in say 2025.
We see a major increase in the number of top 100 players in the league from 1996-1999 (Yes, during Jordan’s second 3-peat), topping out with 32 top 100 players participating in the 1998-1999 season. 1981 only featured 21 of the top 100 players, the least among the years considered. The 1990’s, on average, had the most top 100 players per season, with a mean of 27.5 players. This was followed by the decade from 2000-2010 with 25.6 top 100 players per season, and the 80s last with 24.3 top 100 players per season.
Below is a plot featuring the total rank scores of the players in each season for this time period. In this case, Micheal Jordan gets a rank score of 100 since he’s ranked #1 while Shawn Kemp gets a rank score of 1.
Again we see that the period from 1996-1999 had the highest rank sums, with the maximum rank sum value of 1556 seen in 1997. 1981 had both the lowest count of top 100 players and the lowest rank sum from 1980-2010. We see a steeper increase in the rank sum at the end of the 2000s than from the # of top 100 players, which is likely due to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook entering the league in consecutive seasons from 2006-2008.
Below is a table featuring the [minimum – mean – maximum] values for both the # of top 100 players per season and the sum of each players ranks per season.
|Decade||# of top 100 players||Sum Rank|
|1980-1989||21 – 24.3 – 27||1053 – 1338 – 1556|
|1990-1999||23 – 27.5 – 32||1291 – 1475 – 1698|
|2000-2009||23 – 25.6 – 29||1181 – 1349 – 1574|
Looking at the whole picture, according to SLAM magazine, the 1990s were clearly the most dominant, particularly as evidenced by the sum of the player ranks. The 1990s had 126 higher average sum ranks than the 2000s, which is fascinating considering that Micheal Jordan who had a rank value of 100 did not play in two of these seasons (yes, coming back for the 1995 playoffs counts…). When comparing the 1980s to the 1990s we see similar # of top 100 players and player ranks. The 2000s did have a much higher floor than the 1980s in terms of rank sum.
This is all contingent on SLAM’s ratings, but I suspect that we would see a totally different list if this was made in 2028, at which point critics would have the proper time to reflect on the decade of basketball that we are currently in.
Keywords: Best NBA Players, Top NBA Players of All Time, Whats the best NBA Era